Wednesday 1 April 2020

Pearl Jam - Gigaton (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Mar 2020
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Pearl Jam were one of many insanely successful alternative rock bands whose appeal I never understood. I liked the odd single and I really appreciated a cover of Masters of War that Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready contributed to Bob Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert. What I never felt was the urge to dig deeper. This eleventh album is being talked about as being more experimental in nature, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

I don't know that I'd call it experimental, as much of it sounds rather like I'd expect Pearl Jam to sound, but there are some unexpected moments and the album generally is both perkier than I'm used to and much more patient. I'm hearing a more crafted sound too, maybe not to prog degrees but with layers of instrumentation added in to texture the songs. It's still recognisably a Pearl Jam album but one flavoured by very different alternative rock outfits like, say, Radiohead or even OMD.

The end result of all that means that I enjoyed Gigaton more than I expected and that's no bad thing. My favourite track may be Quick Escape, which would surely have sounded wildly different in the early nineties, even written and performed by the same people. It isn't the first or the last song to carry a heavy David Bowie influence but it turns into a very effective jam, in which the band members seem to all be soloing at once but somehow progressing the song consistently at the same time.

The most overt departure from normal is surely Dance of the Clairvoyants, as a sort of new wave Bowie song. I see that the band members switched up their instruments completely for this number, with Jeff Ament playing guitar and keyboards rather than the usual bass, McCready handling percussion not lead guitar and Stone Gossard shifting from guitar to bass. It ably highlights a deliberate choice to expand their musical horizons and I admire that.

They certainly vary the tone of these dozen songs considerably. There's less grunge here than outright punk, or post-punk, a song like Take the Long Way carrying an urgency that I wouldn't have expected from a band with this much financial success already behind them. Never Destination is post-punk too, a sort of cross between Elton John and Iggy Pop. Everything on offer here has a post-something feel to it. It's post-pop, post-punk, post-grunge. It's an agreeable step for a band like Pearl Jam at this point in time.

At the other end of the tonal spectrum, songs like Alright and Buckle Up are fundamentally laid back. The former sounds like Vedder recorded it a capella but the band layered in instrumentation afterwards and did so with keyboards and a nice mbira, an African thumb piano, before adding guitars and drums to the mix. The latter is so wide open that it ought to be played and listened to outdoors. The backing is very African in nature, though Vedder's voice is still quintessentially American and alternative.

The acoustic Comes Then Goes has a strong roots influence too, but with more of an American feel, channelling country, blues and folk rather than African music. This one's indoors music not outdoors, though best performed in front of a cozy social environment. It's minimal, just voice and guitar, even with that guitar getting vehement at points. Retrograde starts minimal but layers in so much that we have to start it again to figure out everything that it's doing.

And that seems to be a good way to look at this album. It impressed me more than any other Pearl Jam album I've attempted, just from a first listen, and it left me with easily more incentive to go back and explore it deeper. It's not the change in style that was Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, but it does a lot of the same things and occasionally in the same ways. I just hope Pearl Jam don't see this as a one-album project and continue down this road in the future.

"I want this dream to last forever," Vedder sings on River Cross, amidst the pump organ and unusual rhythms. So do I.

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